The mentality of today s worker focuses on not only providing what is necessary to survive for their own life as well as that of their family, but also thrives for a life of luxury and comfort. Society today is based upon principles that promote a strong work ethic that buys us comfort and satisfaction. A capitalistic society, spawned by a growth of industry and a driven force of consumers, is one that encourages luxury and self-fulfillment through material items. On the other end of the spectrum there exists a society of which a person accustomed to the life of free trade and open markets can barely comprehend. This is a life of self-sufficiency, a life in which a community may only produce what is absolutely necessary for survival. This is the self-reliant society where there is nothing to enjoy, the only goal in life is to merely stay alive. There is no surplus, there is no currency used as a means of trade, nor does this society have any consumers trading as they please.
Free and open markets are considered to be the key elements in our current time of prosperity. One who is accustomed to such a life of luxury and wealth potential may find it difficult to understand a life of a worker during the medieval ages in Europe. This is a life of necessity, one in which an individual is not concerned with material wealth and general luxury; rather the concern is survival. Fundamentally, when comparing two different economies such as the current capitalistic economy with the economy of medieval Europe, the main representation must be expressed through understanding the life and mentality of the average worker.
In an economy based on necessity, life is without luxury. There is neither a significant surplus of physical product nor is there a surplus of material holdings or wealth. On the contrary, a capitalistic society is based on entrepreneurship and the drive of the individual to reach a peak of financial wealth; in other words, there is a potential for prosperity as means of obtaining comfort and familial stability.
The Middle Ages lasted somewhere between the fall of the Roman Empire up until the dawn of European Renaissance. Basically, the dark ages were between 476 CE to 1500 CE (Pluta 79). During this time, people lived in absolute poverty, weather was drastic to agriculture, invasion was a constant threat to the King, and illness was a major concern. In these harsh living conditions, survival was the only thing people thought about. In short, life was based on raw necessity. Wealth could only be measured in land, and the only way to gain land was to be a noble servant to the King, and as his servant, land is granted in exchange of military protection, this contract is also known as a Vassalage. Considering the mindset of Nobles, which was to fulfill their vassalage with their King as well as live a life of superiority, there was only one way to maintain land and that was to hire out serfs who were peasants that farmed the land and protected their noble vassal. There is a basic structure that is evident in this feudal life; the economic base of feudalism was agriculture. (86) The land held by nobles was used to produce crops; these crops produced enough food to keep Europe alive. (Oakley 85) In addition to the economic agricultural base of medieval Europe, the …economy was also based on theft. Royalty expanded its wealth, not only by taxes, but by stealing from subjects of other royalty… (Pluta 88) As the serfs struggled to survive, much of their hard labor went to feed the land wealthy nobles and kings. These Kings and Nobles spared no expense on themselves, as they enjoyed plentiful amounts of food and drink. (89) Many peasants starved and had diets that consisted primarily of wheat. Peasants had poor diets and were extremely malnourished. (Roberts 241) The drink of choice in medieval times was beer. Since the water was bad, beer was the best alternative, and also offered a source of protein to peasants, who rarely ate meat. The Feudal Life was extremely difficult, life expectancy for serfs, who represented approximately 95 percent of European population (Pluta 86), was no more than approximately 23 years. (90) Only the elite few lived well.
In the dark ages, Kings and Nobles were the elite. There was an extremely unfavorable balance of wealth. Peasants, not only had very little to eat, they had no privacy. The average worker farmed crops all day and may have slept four to five hours a night. Serfs farmed the land and gave dues to their nobles, these dues consisted mainly of grains, chicken, or pigs. (85) They also had to tithe ten percent of their personal harvests to support the local church. Serfs had very little to begin with, yet they gave up in many cases more than they could afford to. The typical medieval manor was divided into three parts: The demesne (land allotted to the lord), open fields (land allotted to the serfs), and the commons (land that was open to all). (Rider 34) This arrangement allowed the lord to live separate from the serfs and offered an organizational structure for farming the land. Considering the time, there was only enough space allotted for serfs to produce a self-fulfilling crop. The only person who was plentiful with crops was the Lord and the King. In medieval times there was no middle class, you either worked as slave to merely survive or you were one of the elite five percent that lived somewhat comfortably. Why would serfs worry about things that are cherished in a free trade society? When the only thing that keeps you going everyday is the idea that you want to live to see the next day, things like cell phones and personal computers are not so important anymore. It is clear that people in medieval times were not very conscious of time, there was no concern for the past and the future was not something that a person considers when he/she is trying to make it in the present.
Today, people want to make money. It is important in current society to prosper financially. It is important to provide wealth and comfort to the family as well. Most people in today s workforce are middle class. People in a capitalist economy own businesses or at least, in many cases own interests in other businesses. Wealth in general in measured in both material wealth and in paper wealth (money). The average person in the capitalist workforce lives comfortably. The median family income in the United States as reported by the Census Bureau is approximately 40 thousand dollars annually. This income is considered to be in the middle class bracket. Not to say that everyone in a capitalist society is living in luxury, but life is much better in the current economic society than it was in medieval times.
The current free market concept can be traced all the way back to the age of mercantilism in the time of European Renaissance. Once the feudal system broke up in Europe, there was a rise in international trade as well as agricultural prosperity that resulted in surpluses. The main reason for this trade opening was that travel routes were open during the Crusade movement. These merchants were not necessarily considered by royalty to be high class, but many of them were quite wealthy. From this merchant ethic evolved what we know now as a free market. In theory, a free market is self-controlled. Much of the classical economic theory for which our economy in the U.S. is based comes from The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. Smith basically defined what an ideal economic structure is. There are several elements in this concept. First, Smith believed that limited role for government in the private economy was necessary for the success of a nation, because government involvement resulted in more harm than good. (Pluta 155) The second classical concept of a capitalist economy is the concept of the division of labor. Smith did not invent this concept in any way, as a matter of fact, near the end of the Middle ages; some manors specialized in specific crops. For example, Manor A produced only corn, Manor B produced only wheat, and Manor C produced potatoes. In doing this, each manor could make more than they needed and trade for other foods and products they needed with their surplus (this is the kind of thing that helped start mercantilism). The U.S. economy, at least during the manufacturing era of our economy was based on specialization and division of labor, just look at how successful the Ford Model T was! The entire concept of a capitalist market structure can in many ways be due to Adam Smith s Invisible hand theory. The invisible hand theory is the basic concept that illustrates the importance of competition; competing businesses create market standards and regulate the economy. (Viner 53) This theory, in practice, means that a market will balance itself without government intervention. The economy today in the U.S. can be easily summed up in a classical economic principle, which is that of supply and demand. This is a society of consumers. People value material items and purchase products at the price they are willing to pay and provide service of their own part in order to have a medium for exchange of said products. In short, people work to buy what they want, and products are produced in turn to satisfy customer s demands.
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